London Olympic Opening Ceremony

(Please, as though you weren’t already wondering what I’d thought of it.)

Well done, I’d say; very well done.

My experience of the London Opening Ceremonies is, of course, limited to what I was able to glean through the NBC Broadcast in the US; interrupted as it was by countless commercial breaks and the (imho) distracting and inane prattling of the on-camera hosts during the broadcast. Regrettably, at one point NBC cut away from any reference to and the entire performance of the reverential and moving Tribute to Terror Victims for an interview of US Swimmer Michael Phelps. “They” didn’t think it was appropriate for American Audiences. Is this news coverage of a world event or “Entertainment Tonight”?

Okay, back to the subject at hand…

These, then, are my impressions from having just finished watching the ceremonies, all the way through; knowing only what I saw and heard, via television, and before debriefing with my dear friend and Arbiter of British Taste, in London, who attended.

Overall Impression

The implied mandate or challenge, of course, was to somehow beat the unbeatable. “How are they going to beat Beijing?” That four-year conversation found common ground in conjecture that London would “have to go in a different direction,” and in a different direction Danny Boyle did go!


Compared to Beijing’s Awesome Spectacle, I found the London Ceremonial Experience to be Magnificently Personal… While in Beijing’s Production, we experienced one jaw-dropping moment after another; virtually incredible displays of technology with massive, choreographed stunts and effects performed with precision by thousands of essentially “invisible” performers. [By “invisible,” I mean either covered or clad in technology or inside the mechanisms.]

Time and again, four years ago, one’s mind would be asking “HOW did they do THAT?” It was truly awesome; what the producers were able to accomplish. The production was slick, timed to the millisecond, massive, heavy with technology and it projected an aggressive pride in accomplishment for the PRC…and rightly so.

In Friday’s Ceremony in London, on the other hand, one could see every single, individual performer; nothing was hidden, it was all there. The magic was in … here it comes … the Subliminal Engagement of the audience in offering them the opportunity to personally involve themselves in the creation of their own Experience.

What was slick and clean and impressively sterile in Beijing was, on Friday, broad and expansive and a little cluttered and almost (almost!) messy…and very, deeply human.

What I Liked

The drums. From the beginning, Boyle filled that stadium with percussion. Drums: the first, most primitive of musical instruments and the one that shakes people right to their primal bones. Drums. GREAT call. They showed up in many forms and different contexts and kept the audience resonating, thus open to the stories that were being told on a subconscious level. Primal.

The intense experience of percussion actually stimulates the most primal part of the brain and our ancestral wiring. There is no thinking at all involved in appreciating percussion, as we communicated with drums even before there was fire. Opening the show with and interweaving throughout with drums keeps the right brain actively alive and open to more.

The L.E.D. Beds and Bedsheets. Just a cool effect; I want to use it, somewhere.

The Doves. I thought the doves were brilliant. Combining the symbol of Peace so evocatively with the art, discipline and craft of cycling, something so intrinsically British, had to have brought a gasp to the throats of the audience in the stadium. From their entrance until the final, “ET”-esque flight into the sky, these Doves brought a magic into the space that was ethereal…something to make the audience reach…

Again, an excellent example of Subliminal Engagement, much as I’ve cited Julie Taymor’s drawing-on-the-ancient costume design for “The Lion King,” the audience can see and appreciate all the pieces, then their imaginations kick-in and take them beyond what is before them. Wonderful.

The Set. To me, it seemed a little Middle Earth-like, at first. Though as it became populated, I began to appreciate what we were being given. Again, spectacle on a human scale. As the set evolved – through, I might note, transition technology that was primarily of the lowest tech possible: actual human beings – it became more and more familiar and impressive.

It was theatrical. Essentially, the entire production was presented theatrically, and it worked.

The Flame Entering the Stadium. From the moment Steven Redgrave took the flame from David Beckham and the pyro fountains went off, behind him; I was moved. The dark run to the stadium, the honor guard of 500 construction workers, the youthful representatives of the future of Sport in the UK…face to face, generation to generation. This was powerful imagery.

The Flame Circling the Stadium. Watching those kids run the track, beatific smiles on their faces as they appreciated where they were (well, as much as one so young can appreciate anything so magnificent in the context of one’s life: not only do these kids have no lines on their faces, their brains are barely scored, yet), had me close to weeping, openly. This is why I watch these things in private.

More so, though; the fluid ease with which they handed-off the torch from one to the other with successive legs of the circuit as, for me, symbolic of a teamsmanship, a camaraderie that can exist in sport that I’d like to think is more predominant in the next few generations than I may have seen in my own. It was powerful, for me.

The Lighting and The Cauldron. Inspired. Inspired. Inspired.

A little Successive Revelation combined with Liberating Preconception and a touch of OMG as we were able to realize that those things we saw being carried-in with the athletes were part of something bigger…such as, the biggest part of the Ceremony.

There have been bigger and more awesome Cauldron Lightings. For me, Barcelona will ever remain the most authentic, human achievement in this context. The aim of Antonio Rebollo had to be perfect and true; there was no second shot. It was a breathtaking moment. Beyond that, the lightings of several, more recent ceremonies have been spectacular, with pyrotechnics coming from everywhere; leaving the audience agape with the sheer charge and energy. Wonderful, big, impressive…

But London 2012 did something viscerally metaphorical. This happened gently and slowly, paced almost organically, for us to realize, piece by piece, as the shells came alight, that there may be more before us than meets the eye. Moving slowly, much as might the coming together of Nations and People, the shells rose on their pylons to gather on high and take the shape of the Olympic Cauldron – reflecting the gathering of nations for one purpose that is the Olympics.

And, rather than being high above the field, towering over the city; it is at the heart of the field of play, in the center of the stadium. Embraced by the surrounding competitors and nations.

Pretty cool.

The Hands-free Lighting Stunts. What a gift to the audience to relieve them of physical duties during the show; instead, placing led screens at each seat to do that work for them. The effect, on television, was exceptional; reflecting or magnifying what was taking place on the field. I’ve no idea how it felt to be sitting among that; whether it was or wasn’t distracting. But it sure looked good for the show.

What I’m Not So Sure About

All that intricate choreography on a field, so far away. From the Industrial Revolution, onward, there was some pretty intimate storytelling going on, all over that field. Did that read? Was it necessary to have Image Magnification in order to fully appreciate what was taking place on the field? Were that the case, would that not split focus between field and screen? Dunno. Once I know the answer to that, I’ll know what I think.

My own practice is to keep cameras off the field, never allow them between audience and Experience.

Length of each segment. From where I sat, they went on a bit long for my taste. That being said, there was so much going on, on the field, that perhaps the dance numbers had to go on a bit for the audience to take it all in. I suppose one had to be there.

Parade of Nations. Didn’t this used to be a tad more formal; perhaps a bit regimented? All ceremonial-like with people in lines and rows and all pomp and circumstance-y? It seems that only a few, small, African nations treat this Moment with deep respect and reverence; while the Caucasians are all about the Spotlight and just a little self-absorbed. It’s as though the athletes used to be moved and thrilled to be marching into the stadium, and now they are thrilled and pleased to be marching into the stadium “…so that everyone can see ME!”

Or, am I just a curmudgeon?

I like ceremony, and I’m a tad disappointed to see this degeneration of formality. At the same time, they sure do look happy.

But it’s still TOO LONG! I know from experience that one can get 11,000 athletes onto a field in 45 minutes with singular and specific recognition being given to every team. I have shared this format with a world-class Producer of Spectacle with a number of Olympic Ceremonies under his belt and likely many more in his future. If you’re reading this, and you know who you are, I plead with you to use that approach in a future Olympic Opening and blow the minds of the world; enjoying undying gratitude of the multitudes. You will shorten not only the Parade, you will also cut huge amounts of drivel from the clueless commentators.

Of course, this would also cut at least an hour of high-revenue advertising time. Thus, probably never happen.

Camera Work. It seemed that a lot depended on camera work; close ups and cutaways and, during the child and adolescent segments, on-screen close-ups and pop-ups. Ironically, this worked great, on television, but I can’t imagine it working in the stadium without people having to look at the iMag screens. [Unless…that was a function of the at-seat screens in the stadium. While that would still split the focus; it might minimize the dissonance.]

Rowan Atkinson and the London Philharmonic. Didn’t get that one, at all. But then, I am not British. I know the guy’s loved. On the other hand; I kept thinking, during that segment, what a bunch of sports must be the London Philharmonic: to be playing at the Olympic Ceremonies and be completely upstaged by a comic and a film clip. So, hey: I guess it worked!


Am I missing something? When the teen girl lost her phone and the teen boy found it and called her to tell her he’d done so, what device did she answer?

All in all, where I was wowed and awed by the spectacle of Beijing; the net effect was of being impressed by technological and logistical prowess. With London, I am moved and touched by the humanity and intimacy, the personal-ness of what was delivered. It evoked feelings and made us embrace them in order to appreciate what we were seeing; it engaged the audience with the familiar, then took us further. Very well done.

…and, the British are, by all I know and can see, very good sports about themselves.


15 thoughts on “London Olympic Opening Ceremony

  1. I was wondering the same thing about the phone!! And yes, I was curious of your take on the event. 🙂 Sofie agrees, drums drums and more drum. I especially like that part was lead by a deaf drummer!

  2. I’m sorry Kile, but I have different viewpoint. The Olympics lacked a inspiring, unifying them that could send a universal message to the nations around the world. It started with a pastoral, romantic image of early England, which never animated itself. It was simply a memory of innocence that would be stripped away by the muscularity and aggression of the industrial age. That original scene had a lot of potential, but the show never returned to its nature-centered imagery. Instead, the rest of the images were a long stream of human inventions and technologies that had nothing to say about the olympics, about sports, or about the potential for humanity to succeed simply by virtue of its natural abilities.

    I was left with a sickening feeling and sheer boredom. You mentioned “degeneration of formality” in the entrance of the athletes, but I felt the same lack of reverence throughout the show. A few moments were inspired, but mostly the images were off-putting, cynical and devoid of inspiration. Britain has contributed a lot to the unification of humanity around the world, but that was not reflected in the television-styled sitcom of a couple of texting teenagers who “hook up” for the night and think it’s love. It was cute, but it’s not an inspirational for the young children in developing countries who are watching the ceremony and looking for a teachable moment.

    Everything was reduced to a disposable moment or object. Everything was made ironic or a joke. Even the queen of England parachuted out of a helicopter. It’s not an image I felt moved by. Would I want to see the Pope, the Emperor of Japan, or even the President of the United States become an actor in a James Bond skit? I felt so sad at the end of the ceremony that Britain’s culture was reduced to an incoherent narrative without focus or vision. There are many iconic symbols that could have been used to celebrate a universal spirit that rests in the hearts of the English. The ceremonies could have easily started with stonehenge and built a storyline of humanity that lives in concert with the cosmos.

    The adventurous nature of the English who traveled the seas and brought democracy and fair governance to much of the developing world was a great achievement that would resonate and educate many who are living in countries without a voice in their government. Angry punks and gleesome suburban teenagers may suggest freedom, but they are not inspirational images for most people who don’t live in post-modern decadence. Here in Japan, my students didn’t feel moved by the ceremonies, because it didn’t revere harmony. And I agree with them. Great spectacles of this sort should focus on the timeless qualities that transcend cultural idiosyncrasies. When I look to the Olympics, I want to be reminded of the underlying unity that binds humanity, nature and the cosmos together. London’s Olympic Torch alone provided that moment for me.

    • Jasper, I can’t argue with what you found missing; mainly due to the fact that I agree with most of it. There was no scope and sweep of Magnificent History or International Meaning. The elements you missed are those I would want in a ceremony I would write and direct; but I sometimes think I go too far in that direction with some of my work. It’s reassuring to hear from one who yearns for depth and scope. While the London Ceremonies were most definitely self-referential to the point of possibly coming across as exclusive from a worldview; I did find heart and soul as things got personal. Beijing had grandeur, scope, magnitude, reach and sweep; yet I never even got misty=eyed. It was all too perfect. This was not perfect, and it had soul imho. Neither, I suppose, trumps the other, and I would move for more formality, ceremony and of course my own trademark of emotionally-compelling, moving moments among them. I very much appreciate your comments; they add, frankly, a heartening perspective. Thank you.

  3. I thought the same thing about the phone — so, he finds her lost phone and texts “Hey there pretty girl, you lost your phone!!” A text she receives — on a phone. It made me wonder if Mr. Boyle doesn’t know how texting works…

    I found the whole Ceremonies to be very well done and moving. What started off a little shaky (um, sheep? really?) ended up goose-bumpy magnificent — Pink Floyd, Paul McCartney, FIREWORKS and all…

  4. YES. I did wonder what you were thinking, and thought you might like the personal-ness of it. It’s not often that us Brits touch on emotions, but it turns out we can do it, and well!

    Oh, and I thought Mr Bean (Rowan Atkinson) was genius. Not sure how internationals would interpret, but that and HRH and Bond skydiving into the stadium was fabulous. So tongue in cheek, and oh so very British daahling.

  5. To tell you frankly,I found the London Olympics Opening Ceremony boring and dull.This is due to the fact that I am not fond of English culture apart from the English language which I love.I just love USA,France,Australia and Spain.And being an Indian I am not into the liking of China as well, as the Chinese may be very focussed and hard-working but they are great-haters.

  6. And the celebration of national healthcare? What did you think of it? What do you think our boy Mittens Malaprop the GOP candidate thought of it?

    • LOL…that piece went on way too long and was dependent on close-ups which, imho, shuts out the audience that is present or splits their focus and distracts them from the experience. I loved the self-illuminating beds and bedsheets, though.

  7. I liked your review but missed mention of my second favorite part the powerful me was forging of the ring, it’s joining with the others etc. The cauldron made of the petals brought in one by one with the teams underlining the from many one message was the highpoint. I too appreciated the human qualities.

  8. Well said. I’ll never forget that flaming arrow in Barcelona… It seemed to hang in the air for ten minutes.

    My trouble with the Olympics these days is they’ve gone totally, crassly pro. The athletes who are telegenic will make fortunes hawking wares; the sponsors have ensured that their brands and the Olympic brand have no competition within a kilometer of the stadium.

    That commercials now influence the pacing is unmistakable; that the television version is manipulated for maximum payoff to the broadcaster is equally obvious. They ignore the actual schedule in order to broadcast the most eyeball-worthy events at the best times for advertisers, which means most events are already over and we know who won. In the end that’s got to harm the ratings.

    I’d like to see the logos (except the Olympic logo) stripped away and let the Games be the Games.

    That aside, this event remains one of the few occasions when sheer human effort and unswerving purpose come together, time after time, to create something memorable and worthy of our often-underachieving species. The opening ceremonies have become a tacit reminder that sport is also art, of a kind, and art at its best is a game.

  9. Great writing Kile!

    I was very, very fortunate to have landed a ticket to the ceremony and was there in the stadium seated behind the big bell- and I suppose the feeling is quite different from what you would have seen on TV. Apologies for the long email!!!

    In my humble opinion – Of all ceremonies in the modern era (post Sydney 2000 which truly revolutionised ceremonies as a medium for nation branding and storytelling) I think this was one of the weaker ones, not because of the lack of technology or expensive flamboyance, but perhaps due to the lack of a coherent narrative from start to end. There seemed to be a lack of lineage between segments that this historic, once in a lifetime moment should have, but most of all, there lacked the simplicity of audience participation.

    I see the Olympic Opening as almost – the most sacred of weddings, or a royal coronation moment, steeped in history and respect for all which have come before and are to come after – all of which seemed to be somehow lacking in that night, a little lost in their quest to be ‘different’ or not ‘compete’ with Beijing 08.

    It had a very closing ceremony ethos – and so it would be interesting to see what happens at the actual closing? I would have absolutely loved to see the Queen entering the stadium for the Closing through James Bond and the helicopter narrative, but for the Opening I felt that there is so much history and reverence for the Monarchy that could have been conveyed but was given a miss?

    Secondly, As one who was in the stadium – I’ll give you a simple example of new technology that did not ‘really’ work. The LED canvas…I think the lack of an audience participation kit and the lack of a flashlight took away a lot from us, from our sense of contribution and activation. We in the stands didn’t quite know what to do with our hands at times, and it relegated us to a passive spectator as opposed to an active participant.

    If you look at the vibrancy of say, Sydney’s “Arrivals” segment where thousands upon thousands of flashlights moving feverishly to the beat, with the most upbeat moment in London’s ceremony, you will find that audience intensity lacking in the latter, having been taken over by LEDs.

    We also never had a ‘spine chilling’ moment like Vancouver’s K.D. Lang/Hallelujah – where everyone could hold up a candle. Abide With Me was very beautiful,but we in the audience could have been much more a part of that ’emotional’ moment. It would be interesting if they used far less LEDs, saved it for very specific spectacular moments, and also incorporate audience participation via flashlights in other parts.

    The LEDs also does not work once people stood up ( as you would block the LED installed on your seat behind you) – which was a natural reaction in a moment of joy (when a nation walks in) or for say the Olympic Hymn when everyone stands up. The choice of projecting the flag on the LEDs resulted in getting a very patchy effect overall, as if a TV screen was damaged with black spots on them.

    Next – the cauldron as innovative as it is, to me, failed to realize the greater good: the public need to connect with it both visually, and dramatically. From the moment it was lit, the immediate reaction of all around me including myself was “why was it not rising? Is this a Sydney Cauldron moment again?!” You would all recall the Sydney Cauldron stopping just above the stands, and you know that feeling – it does not feel ‘complete’. it never came across to anyone that this was all there was. That is was going to stop here and no one outside the stadium was going to get to see it. This was the immediate reaction of a lot of us, and thus the very long wait before a hesitant applause. We in the stadium really were not sure what was going on or if this was it. Not to mention that since then, the cauldron has been extinguished and moved and tampered with. I’m a conservative when it comes to ceremonies and this is to me, a no go.

    Now on to what worked surprisingly well:
    Finally, the one and only good part for me was the turning of Green and Pleasant Land into the Industrial Revolution – that was really the high point because not only were they stripping the set apart in front of everyone, they were deliberately pacing over 500 years of British history into 10 minutes – the Olympic Rings forging and everyone on the field stopping to look up at it, was beautiful, almost symbolising that amidst the chaos of the turn of the century, we can be unified under one symbol and the world pauses for a moment to reflect.

    You almost wanted a protagonist to emerge at that moment and take us through the rest of the evening. After that, unfortunately it seemed that spirit and pacing was lost, NHS was a completely different mood/theme and so was the whole music/film/ video segment which apparently worked well on TV but was lost in the Stadium (due to too much close ups) We had to watch the entire segment on iMAG screens to get it, which should not be the case in a stadium ceremony!

    I think Sydney’s Opening remains one of the most amazing because they managed to merge a sense of pomp and regal pageantry with quirky irreverence, and yet tell an overall story through a little girl, going on to find unity and reconciliation with the aborigines ending with the word ‘Eternity’. It was solid, complex, long but very, very coherent. The Ric Birch/David Atkins team of 2000 is still the most genius of all!

    As tacky and cheesy it might be, it is still what we all want to hear at the end of the day – that is a story everyone around the world can understand and appreciate, and a sense of hope for the future regardless of which ever culture or nations narrative we are watching.

    I feel Danny Boyle failed to fully comprehend or understand the medium he was working in. The Opening Ceremony is not made for TV. It is made for a live audience AND for TV, and the Flame is meant to be shared with everyone!

    • Lee — This is well-written, as well, and eminently enlightening. This discussion is great, in fact; what is coming to light through having posted my pov is a wealth of pertinent fact and detail. It seems Mr. Boyle did plan this as a television event, by design; which, for me, changes much in the way I appreciate what he built. I’m going to continue to reap the responses and follow up with my next week’s post. Me thinketh some sacrilege is being conducted, here…

  10. Thanks for your enlightening descriptions Kile. By the number of projects I got done while the Ceremony was on in the background (sorry Mr. Boyle) it seemed a bit long and slightly disjointed in some of the pieces for me. But, I did indeed also wonder where the gal who lost her cel phone got another so fast to answer the guy with her lost one! Dumb and irrelevant to me. I wish I’d been in Barcelona…or at least in front of a TV set…have heard so much about that one.

  11. I’d add here that these ceremonies were clearly not aimed at the world — for whatever reason, they were very much aimed at Americans. It was palpable.

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